Simulations are hard work. Extended simulations that occur over multiple class periods are doubly so. Instructors must invest substantial effort to set them up and even more to monitor them once they are running. The decentralized learning that makes them so effective also makes it hard to fairly and transparently assess participants. Thus, instructors may be dissuaded from employing them despite their pedagogical benefits.
Social networking software (SNS) can reduce these burdens. With some slight customization, an SNS can be used to efficiently capture most forms of student interaction in a way that is easily accessed by the instructor. SNSs are equipped with user-centered messaging, chat, blog, group, event notification, and file sharing capabilities. SNSs also feature optional plug-ins that can be used to further enrich the experience. They can easily serve as a mechanism for simulation participants to communicate with each other, while allowing instructors to monitor events in real time with no additional work on the part of the students. Another benefit of using an SNS is that once one creates the architecture of a simulation, it can be redeployed instantly for a future class, or quickly modified for another simulation that has a similar array of roles.
I have used the Oxwall and ELGG SNS platforms. Both were installed on a privately-hosted web server (only moderate technical ability required) with some customization to the installation. SNSs have proven highly useful for my World in Crisis simulation. With the SNS I was able to add user accounts for each of the simulation’s roles and group accounts for each of its organizations.
After telling students that every interaction on the SNS would be logged and graded, I regularly extracted copies all the group communications, press statements, and one-on-one communications from the database and converted the information into an Excel file. Once in that format, I could quickly organize all the content by student, by date, or by organization, which allowed me to maintain a relatively current running summary of each student’s contribution in the simulation. The rough estimate of overall participation enabled me to prod under-performing groups and individuals and keep abreast of students’ decisions. Because I required each group to post careful minutes of meetings, I could get a sense of how often groups met face-to-face and what was discussed. And the extracted data allowed me to easily evaluate individual and group performance in a manner that was transparent to students. I could easily code each student’s output in terms of its professionalism, writing, and demonstration of background research.
All of this would have required an army of teaching assistants to accomplish without the SNS. The SNS allowed me to deliver an extended simulation with a fraction of the effort that is usually required.